Main content start
decoration image
 Kenneth Ernest ROBINSON




Kenneth Ernest ROBINSON

Doctor of Letters
honoris causa

Before I assume the role of Dr. Robinson, one of the University's most recent graduates, may I, on behalf of all members of the University, welcome you, Sir, on this the first occasion on which you have presided as our Chancellor at a Congregation? We all realize that this is but one of many roles you are called upon to perform and we greatly appreciate the time and attention which our Chancellors have given to our concerns.

I am very sensible of the honour of being asked to speak today on behalf of your new honorary graduates - all the more so at a Congregation which may be said to mark the University's sixtieth anniversary - the Building in which we meet was first opened on 11 March 1912 by our first Chancellor, Lord Lugard. We are all of us most grateful to the University for honouring us this evening and united in our appreciation of being included in the not very long but very distinguished list of those on whom the University has conferred its highest award. One of us must, I believe, feel a satisfaction which is not open to the rest of us for there is surely something specially satisfying about being made and honorary graduate of the University in which your undergraduate years were spent. On that account Dr. Chun must feel something extra on which we should all like to congratulate her.

But, besides our pleasure and gratitude, is there anything else which all of us, your new doctors honoris causa, have in common? It is of course the university - not only in the sense of the University of Hong Kong which has brought us together here today - but our membership of that wider community of universities throughout the world of which this University is a part. Diligent study of the Public Orator's citations, which we ourselves may well be too embarrassed to undertake, will reveal how we are all of us personally linked in this way. Two of us are graduates of one university, three of us have been teachers in another, two of us are present members and one a former member of the staff of this University. Collectively too we represent all those professions, training for which was a major function of the mediaeval European universities which are among the ancestors, however distantly, of all universities: our numbers include a cleric, a lawyer, a doctor, a one time civil servant, and several of us are or have been university teachers.

We are all, I am convinced, united in the profound sense we have of belonging to the international community of universities and of the great debt we owe to it, and most of all to the universities which nurtured us in our student days. We are all of us united too in having at one time or another worked in our professional capacities in Hong Kong and may I at this point say how particularly glad those of us who live and work here are that this ceremony has provided an opportunity for Professor Keeton to revisit the University and for Dame Eileen to offer us once again the wise counsels from which both Government and Universities in Hong Kong have benefited on former occasions.

We are therefore most appropriately now further united in our new membership of this University and in responding on our behalf it may not be unsuitable for me to voice the misgivings which I feel all of us must in some degree share about the present position and future of universities the world over. When, nearly seven years ago, I first addressed Congregation I said there were problems in the relationship between a university and the community of which it is part and which sustains it, which were unlikely ever to be wholly resolved because they arose from two conflicting demands, both essential to the continuing vitality of any university. The first of these demands was that a university must be free both in teaching and research to pursue the study of subjects for some of which the community may see little need and to teach any subject in a way often derided as "academic", that is so as to raise fundamental questions which may seem pointless to those whose main anxiety was to ensure the transmission to a new generation of the practical techniques of an earlier one. The second of these demands was that a university must be ready to meet, to the fullest extent that the resources available to it allow, such needs in teaching and research as may be pressed upon it by the community. Neither of these demands should be allowed to dominate a university to the exclusion of the other. If the first were allowed to do so, a university could degenerate into ineffective triviality; but if the second were conceded completely the university would, I said, 'lose or never acquire those fundamental spiritual resources that so evidently characterize the great universities of the world'. The 'fruitful tension' of those conflicting demands was, I claimed, an essential condition of the health of a university.

I said then that too great a concession to the second of these demands was 'certainly the more immediate danger in many parts of the world today'. But I did not for a moment foresee that only a year or two later much of the university world would be in turmoil, some of it indeed closed or even partly destroyed. Still less did I foresee that one major allegation in that upheaval would be that in their efforts to meet the second demand of which I had spoken, universities, especially perhaps those in North America, had made such concessions in their research activities and public service functions to the pressures of government and business as to make any claim that even the great universities were reservoirs of fundamental spiritual energies seem merely derisory. Nor did I imagine that in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, similar turmoil and violence would be defended by claims that, by their failure to pay sufficient attention to the educational needs of contemporary society, universities had indeed degenerated into irrelevant triviality.

I am not of course suggesting that this backward glance at my own thoughts can provide any adequate assessment of the many factors which have contributed to the contemporary disenchantment with the image of the university in so many parts of the world. But there are two such factors to which I wish to invite your particular attention. This first is a failure on the part of many of us in the university world - and many of those outside it - to distinguish sufficiently clearly between governmental and commercial pressures and those needs of society that are relevant to the mission of the university. The second is a failure to ask sufficiently insistently how far undertaking any particular task pressed upon a university is compatible with the functions universities are dedicated to perform. If it seeks actively to maintain and communicate the detachment of objectivity, an ivory tower may well be less harmful than a diploma or research business which fails to maintain the rigorous standards demanded by the attempt at a disinterested search for truth. It is that search, the communication of those standards to a new generation, and their constant reformulation in a changing social context, which constitute the basic tasks of a university.

The maintenance and enrichment of our civilization depends very greatly on the quality of the universities' response to these tasks. In most parts of the world, universities are the major institutions to which these tasks are entrusted, in many they are the only ones. No more than any other social institution can universities be isolated or abstracted from the societies of which they form part. But the performance of their essential task is one calculated from time to time to incur the hostility of many. While it is vital to the well-being of universities that their performance of those tasks should be critically appraised both from with and from without, it is no less vital that their critics should understand that the necessary conditions for the performance of the tasks entrusted to universities include freedom to arrive at conclusions which may be unpalatable as well as contestable. It is not less vital that all of us in the universities should be constantly alive to out heavy responsibility to maintain the rigorous standards of the dedicated search for truth.

I believe that at the heart of the contemporary malaise in the university world are disagreements and uncertainties both in the universities themselves and outside, about the proper relationship between these tasks of the universities and the many other important tasks of higher education as a whole, between the claims of scholarship and those of the wider education needs of society. There are no doubt many reasons why this problem should not have reached a critical point in many parts of the world. I will try to pin-point a few of them. First, universities have always been institutions for providing training for certain occupations. The number and variety of these occupations have greatly increased in the last century with the expansion of primary and secondary education and the development of the natural and applied sciences, and more recently of the social sciences. Second, the needs of society for people who have acquired particular skills, requiring specialized training and knowledge beyond that considered appropriate to secondary schools, have more recently greatly expanded with the development of more scientifically sophisticated and technologically based economies. Third, the expansion of secondary education has resulted in increasing numbers of people who seek further education, either as an avenue to social or economic advantages, or for the enjoyment and enlargement of their own faculties. Fourth, in the last twenty years much attention has been focused on the relationship between highly-trained manpower and economic growth. (Much of what has been written and said about this relationship in that period is in my view bad economics and bad education, but that is another matter.)

Fifth, the need for higher education and the demand for it that have resulted from the four factors I have just listed lead to increased and increasing expenditure on all forms of higher education, whether we measure it in absolute terms or as a proportion of national income or public expenditure.

Sixth, such methods as we have of selecting people for different forms of higher education provide at best only rough guides to ability or suitability, and the larger the proportion of the population receiving some form of higher education the more attention is focused on the imperfections of these methods. So it is urged, selection should be abolished or at least transfer from one kind of higher education should be made much easier.

Leaving revolutionary politics aside (and of course they are not always left aside) these six factors have combined to produce a demand for the radical transformation of higher education so that all varieties of it - academic, professional, vocational, and technical - are provided in a single multi-purpose institution, a comprehensive university, a university as comprehensive in the range of higher education and vocational training that it offers as are comprehensive schools at the secondary level. Such a prospect has undeniable attractions, promising as it does administrative simplicity and lower costs resulting from the more intensive use of expensive facilities. But for my part, I have serious doubts whether the multi-purpose university, embodying within itself a very large range of different types of higher education each aiming at a different type of product, is really likely to prove the most effective means of meeting the higher educational needs of contemporary society. In particular, I question whether the enormous scale and diversity of the universities would be likely to realize the full potential of the more vocationally oriented higher education which I believe is now so important to expand and improve in most parts of the world. And at the present stage of economic and educational development of many countries of the world, such a development of multi-purpose or comprehensive institutions of higher education would be in great danger of undermining their capacity to perform the essential function of universities as we have known them, the pursuit of knowledge and the training of new generations in what that pursuit involves.

We are, I can imagine many of you thinking, a long way yet from all this in Hong Kong. But the problem of priorities in education (and not merely within higher education, which is what I have been talking about) is in Hong Kong not a much more difficult and complex one than it has been until quite recently. It is futile to say that we must have more of everything as well as major changes within all the constituent parts of our educational system. The essential question remains, here as elsewhere, how much altogether and how much of each kind. But in Hong Kong, poised as it is at present between the kind of world in which resources are so limited that the priorities at least appear to settle themselves, and the kind of world in which resources are sufficiently great to make many choices less agonizing, this problem of priorities is of the greatest difficulty and complexity. But one essential in its consideration is that we must look at all post secondary education as a whole and in its relation to the rest of the educational system, and I greatly welcome from this point of view the announcement last month of the Government's decision to enlarge the scope of the University Grants Committee to include our new Polytechnic as well as the Universities.

Sir, the tasks that fall to the lot of a Vice-Chancellor are as varied as they are surprising. Certainly I never dreamt that I should be called upon to speak for a Bishop. That indeed daunted me, in spite of the great pleasure it is to use this opportunity to offer him the respectful congratulations of his fellow honorary graduates. But one of the princes of the Church, John Henry Cardinal Newman, wrestled in his time with the problems of the nature and purpose of universities. For all the great changes we have seen in the century that has passed since his Idea of a University was first published, I hope that in calling him to witness I can be confident on this point at least of speaking not only for Bishop Hsu but for all my fellow graduates this evening. Newman epitomized his aim for a university in this description of the qualities he hoped it would produce in a graduate:

He has the repose of a mind which lives itself while it lives in the world.

decoration image